Tuesday, December 6, 2011

(A version of this article appeared in the Nov/Dec edition of Lexpert under the title 'Twas a Labour of Love')

The greatest story ever translated


Howard Richler

You can't always be of be of good cheer and not suffer from sour grapes. The stumbling block may be your holier than thou attitude and your feet of clay that won't allow you to either fight the good fight or eat, drink and be merry.

While I'll admit that the above paragraph I concocted does not represent inspired prose, at least it has the distinction of containing italicized phrases that have been immortalized in an English language book that has provided inspiration to billions. Surprisingly, this book is a translation, written by a committee. In case you haven't divined yet the book`s title, I am referring to the King James Version of the Bible (KJB) and 2011 commemorates the 400th anniversary of its release.

King James I commissioned fifty-four Bible scholars for a new version of Scriptures. They were divided into six nine man teams, two at Cambridge, two at Oxford and two at Westminster. The project took seven years to complete and this joint venture created one of the masterpieces of English literature.

The authors believed they because they were translating the word of God; mistranslating anything would be tantamount to heresy. Scholars marvel not only at the accuracy from Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew but also at its lyricism. Its euphony is striking and it is clear that the ruling organ of the prose is the ear. The Bible was meant to be read aloud in churches to the laity and the committee members were conscious that a melodious word flow would attract a larger and more devout following.

A good book must have a snappy beginning and right from the book`s genesis the language is gripping:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form , and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said Let there be light: and there was light.

The KJB translation team were also able to render down to earth language in a majestic manner. Take the following passage from 1 Corinthians that appeared in William Tyndale`s 16th century Bible:

Now we see in a glass even in a dark speaking but then we shall see face to face.

In the KJB the passage is rendered with greater conciseness and is far grander and clearer: For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face.

For those who find the language of the KJB archaic with expressions such as “art in heaven” and its multitudinous goeths and knoweths, I counter that these touches actually add power to the writing and convey the sense that we are not dealing with ephemeral content. Even during the early part of the 17th century when the KJB was being compiled some of the grammar and phraseology were out of date. For example, the expression “yea, verily” had been passé for half a century. This, however, was done deliberately because its authors were aware that word fashions change and they wanted a book dedicated to an eternal God to transcend any particular era.

Although I am an atheist, I recognize that the Bible, and other sacred texts, have brought great solace to many people during life`s inevitable dark moments. In the BBC documentary The Making of the King James Bible, narrator Adam Nicolson speaks to a fisherman whose twenty-four year old son had recently perished off the coast of the Outer Hebrides. When he asked the fisherman how he was coping with the loss he told him that Psalm 77 “expressed everything he could think or feel.” Intrigued, Nicholson read the passage in his KJB: “Will the Lord cast off for ever and will he be favourable no more?” Is his mercy clean gone for ever? doth his promise fall for everyone?... Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known.”

It is remarkable that verses penned millennia ago in Hebrew and translated four hundred years ago into English can speak so poignantly to the human heart.

I therefore heartily offer sweet counsel (Psalm 55:14) to read a segment of the King James Bible, even if it represents a mere drop of the bucket of its contents. (Isaiah-40:15)

Howard Richler's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Arizona haboobs cause quite the hubbub

November 2011
Not since the debacle some years ago when some Americans suggested renaming French fries “freedom fries” because of France’s lack of support for the invasion of Iraq, have we seen the same level of linguistic jingoistic meshugas. Let me explain.
This summer, Arizona experienced massive dust storms caused by thunderstorms emitting enormous gusts of wind across the desert.
Some local weathermen referred to this phenomenon as a “haboob,” which is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A violent and oppressive wind which blows at certain seasons in the Sudan, and which brings with it sand from the desert.”
Haboob derives from the Arabic habub, “blowing furiously.” No apparent controversy there, and yet the use and derivation of haboob prompted several angry letters from Arizonans.
Typical of such was the following to the Arizona Republic: “After living here for 57 years, I have seen an ‘Arizona dust storm’ or two. I am insulted that local TV news crews are now calling this kind of storm a haboob. How do they think our soldiers feel coming back to Arizona and hearing some Middle Eastern term?”
This sentiment was echoed by other irate letters to the editor.
To be consistent, however, there are a number of other words that should be avoided to protect the sensitivities of Arizonans:
Algebra: This word derives from the Arabic al-jebr, which means “the reuniting of broken parts.” When algebra entered the English language, it referred to the setting of broken bones, and sometimes to the fractures themselves.
As late as 1623, we find an OED citation that only refers to algebra as “bone-setting,” but the mathematical sense of the word entered our lexicon in the 16th century and quickly became the dominant sense.
Zero: “Zero” ultimately descends from the Arabic çifr, from which we also get the word “cipher.” Its first citation to denote the number 0 in English occurs in Edward Grimstone’s 1604 translation of José de Acosta’s widely cited Historia natural y moral de las Indias, where he states: “They accompted their weekes by thirteeene day marking the dayes with a Zero or cipher.”
As mathematicians remind us, the invention of nothing (or zero) was one of the more important discoveries in math history.
Alcohol: Cleopatra probably applied an antimony paste to her eyelids called al-kuhl, the al part meaning “the” and the kuhl ending meaning “powdered antimony.”
Arab alchemists (another Arabic word) gave the name al-kuhl to any finely pulverized powder obtained by sublimation and thus to all compounds obtained through the distillation process. The word came into English as “alcool,” referring to any fine powder. Given the Islamic prohibition against drinking alcohol, it is ironic that this word derives from Arabic.
However, it was not until the 19th century that the word alcohol became used exclusively to denote the West’s favourite liquid.
Magazine: This word ultimately derives from the Arabic makh zin, the plural of makhzan, “storehouse.” Its first sense in the OED is “a place where goods are laid up; a storehouse for goods,” and this sense of storing lives on in its ammunition reference: a gun’s magazine as a holder of bullets or cartridges.
Its sense as a periodical emerged almost accidentally in 1731 when the editors of the Gentleman’s Magazine used the word because they said that they intended “to treasure up, as in a Magazine, the most remarkable Pieces.” The term caught on almost immediately to refer to a periodical publication and this became the dominant sense of the word.
So those who feel insulted by the borrowings from Arabic should bear in mind that English didn’t get to be the global language it is today by being pure. Long may it sleep around.
Howard Richler’s latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.

Thursday, October 20, 2011




The purpose in a letter bank is to create longer words using only the letters that appear in the word. So for example, from “seas” we get “assesses,” “lends” yields “needlessness” and “imps” gives us “Mississippi.” In Celebrity Letter Banks, I will provide the surname of a famous person and from it you are asked to come up with the name of another celebrity, whose surname is comprised of the same letters as the other celebrity, only in this case at least one letter from the first celebrity's surname will be repeated. So for example, if the clue was “Baer” (as in Max Baer or Max Baer Jr.) some possible answers would be “Berra” “Barber” or “Barbee.” Many of the surnames in my quiz will yield more than one answer. See if your answers matches the one or two I’ve provided.


1)Ambler                     Ballmer


























I've called this puzzle Core Words because it features words of four letters or more that represent the heart of the words sought and are only missing the first and last letters of the words. For example, possible answers to the first clue “able” would be “cabled” and “tablet.” All the clue words and the answer words can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary or are recognized place names, trade names, ethnic terms, or surnames of famous people. None of the answers should end in an “s” if it represents a plural.

See if your answers matches the one or two I’ve provided.

Core Word Clue              Answer

1)able                               cabled/tabled































In the first puzzle Split Definitives we found two new words by dividing a word at one point in the word. There is another method, however, of finding two new words. Closeted in many words are other smaller words. For example the word “covenant” can be broken up as such, c(oven)ant to produce “cant” and “oven.” In a similar fashion “evaporating” produces “eating” and “vapor.”

Placing one word inside another is one of the types of clues found in cryptic crossword puzzles are often called container word clues. These are actually three clues in one. A part of the clue suggests the container, another part hints at the inside word and the third part is the main definition. An example of such is “A laugh in the heavens is unstable.” (5 letters) The answer here is “shaky” as ”ha” (the inner word) represents the laugh, the “sky” (the outer word) represents heavens and “shaky” is a synonym for “unstable.”

In this first puzzle, you are asked to match the words on the left side with the the words on the right, with the words on the right representing the inner part of the words. To get you started I will tell you that outer word, 1)”aces” combines with inner word l) “hill” to form the word “Achilles.”

Outer Word Inner Word


1)aces                      a)abet

2)acted                       b)ante

3)badly                    c)Berlin

4)bard                       d)dime

5)beau                        e)dole

6)bide                             f)ever

7)bred                           g)fort

8)buss                           h)game

9)carry                              i)hill

10)cold                             j)lapse

11)colon                          k)laughter

12)comment                    l)live

13)coming                        m)lucid

14)dies                                n)ouch

15)eating                               o)part

16)fish                                    p)pent

17)forte                                   q)posse

18)lint                                       r)quit

19)pressing                               s)ratio

20)reining                                  t)reason

21)rent                                        u)roads

22)runt                                         v)sine

23)sing                                          w)star

24)stakes                                        x)tuna

25)table                                          y)vest

26)time                                          z)weeps


Here the puzzler will find clues that feature three words. In each case you must insert three-lettered words, but not at the beginning or end of words. So for example. If the words were “broom, “ “sow” and “shot” you would add the word “all” to create “ballroom,” “sallow” and “shallot.” As the puzzle progresses past the half-way point, you may find that in some clues there might be a word, or even two, not known to every puzzler. All words, however, are found in the Oxford English Dictionary and none of them are designated as obsolete.

1)sped red sing

2)west fed swing

3)bed get bet

4)orgy mate slot

5)per caul pace

6)bag divest lag

7)mow fed bow

8)rear comes grant

9)pry con per

10)loon sled shoo

11)boon scion show

12)unshed cred red

13)late tile price

14)spring pine per

15)less natal fractal

16)wart gola warty

17)coned deer reed

18)fish men lie

19)absent roue say

20)faced facial sage


One of the reasons English is such a devilishly difficult language to master is that words can have so many different meaning. Many words have slang meaning totally at odds with the standard sense of the word, but these slang meanings are so entrenched in our language that they are listed in virtually all dictionaries. The champion word with various meanings is “set.” It can be used as an adjective, adverb, noun and verb and there are over 200 different senses to the word. The next most prolific word found in our lexicon is “run.”

To complicate matters even more, words that are spelled the same way can have totally different meanings and be pronounced differently. For example, DOES can mean “performs” or “female deer” and PUSSY can refer to a cat but also to something that is full of pus. And you thought English was an easy language?

On the positive side, words that have double meanings are a staple of cryptic crossword puzzles. Thus, in the May16,2010 New York Times cryptic crossword, the duo of Emily Cox & Henry Rathvon presented us with this clue to a four lettered word : “Blue feathers,” The answer here is “down” as this word can mean both “blue” and “feathers.” To help solvers along in my puzzle, I have arranged the puzzle so that the words get longer as it progresses and all the words of the same length are in alphabetical order. Also, the answer can be found in two parts of the clue and where the clue is more than two letters, the solver has to discern how the clue is divided. For example in the first clue, to arrive at the answer “ace.” the clue should be divided “unreturned service” and “expert,” not “unreturned” and “service expert.” Similarly the clue “reduce psychiatrist” would yield the answer “shrink.” Also, be mindful that a clue word that seems to be a noun, verb, adjective, etc., might be something else. Good luck.

Cryptic homonym clue                          Answer
1)unreturned service expert                            ace
2)express pretentious attitude

3)ban pub

4)fire container

5)hound hound

6)terminate final part

7)strike out afficionado

8)cool body part

90)jelly blockage

10)function Old Testament book

11)recumbent prevarication

12)schlep galoot

13)sink kitchen utensil

14)fight line

15)distinguished blade

16)surreptitiously listen to the faucet

17)cravat deadlock

18)desire Japanese money

19)do up nothing

20)upper limbs weapons

21)chops alliances

22)depend on financial institution
23)tolerate someone expectingbad financial conditions

24)outscore rhythm

25)meat complaint


The answer to each word on the right has the last letter of the answer on the left in front of it. For example, if a clue read as such (instructs - effort) the answers would be “trains” and “strain.” Discern the answers with the clues provided. As an added clue the answers in the left column are all in alphabetical order and have a minimum of five letters.


1)most competent pool, bridge, e.g ablest-tables

2)stop the mission type of drum

3)snakes more down

4)befuddles riding apparatus

5)sense of dread strong tastes

6)hope rose shrub

7)rate teases

8)strong point French cup

9)German cars Middle Eastern person

10)groups mischievous child

11)fondle frightens

12)studies hard get lost

13)toilets pugilist

14)what a baby does messy handwriting

15)beliefs harangue

16)economizes folds or presses together

17)painful skin areas disdain

18)hang loosely placed obliquely

19)fool evaded

20)soil core


This puzzle is called “precise recipes” because it features clues that will yield two words answers where each word is an anagram of each other in the manner that “precise” is an anagram to “recipes.” Hence the answer to Puzzle a) #35, “exacting cooking formulas” is precise recipes (Not seen here in this sample puzzle). As an added clue the puzzle starts with clues where you have to discern short answers and then the answers get progressively longer. Hence the answer to the first clue “viper resort” in Puzzle b) is “asp spa” Aside from the answers getting longer, another clue is that the clues are in alphabetical order based on the length of the answer. So for example, in the case of the clues before and after Puzzle a) #35, the answers sought will contain words seven letters long and they will start with the letter “p” or a letter just before or after “p” in the alphabet. To help you along, I have provided the first answer to all five precise recipes puzzles

a)PRECISE RECIPES-The Good LifeI've entitled this section “The Good Life” because it features many phrases that suggest a life replete with life's luxuries, such as food, beverages, culture and entertainment. As you will see some of the entries in the “good life”are not necessarily so good. The answer to #1 “spring potato” is “May yam.”


1)spring potato May yam

2)make Weight-Watcher adjustment

3)actors in T.S.Eliot-inspired play

4))ritzy boutique

5)gunned down emcee

6)quiet spouse

7)inexpensive fruit

8)bogus Canadian hockey team ?

9)yellowish fruit

10)whiter jewel

11)party poopers?

12)What Simon Cowell likes to see each year

13)recycled movies?

14)advertises strong dark beer

15))wishy-washy movie

16)OPEC’s wine choice?

17)Look for a whiskey after a beer

18)women's Olympic golds

19)dating service?

20)cultured product well past the due date?


This puzzle features paired words where each word not only is an anagram for each other but also spells the other word backward. So the answer to the first one “average hip-

hop” is “par rap.” The puzzle is called semordnilap because this made up word spells palindrome backwards and each paired phrase such as “par rap ” is a palindrome. In the next chapter we will look at palindrome puzzles.


1)average hip-hop par rap

2)bitter hostilities

3)Maria Callas?

4)boring poet

5)publish weekly news magazine

6)early rumbling of volcano

7)notice well-known English school

8)created cheese

9)train fabricator

10)concealed weapons?
11)skewer flying mammals
12)famous rodents
13)where to purchase a streetcar?
14)spring or hold-down bar
15)hospital sweepstakes

Puzzle 1Readers are asked to uncover the following palindromes with the aid of the clues provided. Remember that in palindromes the placement of a letter usually tells one where other letters are placed. So for the second clue that means that the fourth letter from the end will also be an “r.” Also if the clue features a plural, there’s a good chance that an “s” will appear at the then of at least one word. When this first puzzle is completed, the third letters of the phrases will spell out a question that George W. Bush may have asked himself while attending Yale.

1)Support a taxi _ _ _ k _ _ _
2-Laconic snares _ _ _ r _ _ _ _ _ _ _
3)Former Cambodian leader _ _ _ _ _ _
4)Keen operatic star _ _ _ d _ _ _ _
5)Break bridges s _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
6)Free Indian guitar s _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
7)Bare-headed _ _ _ a _ _ t _ _
8)Less than 2000 lbs. _ _ _ _ _ _ n
9)Simple French mineral water _ _ _ v _ _ _ _ _ _
10)Harshly enclose pets s _ _ _ _ _ a_ _ _ _ _ _
11)Bamboo eater slept _ _ _ d _ _ _ _ _ _ _
12))Holy Grail of Pro Hockey _ u _ _ _ _ _


1)What is the only letter that doesn’t appear in any of the 50 United States?

2)What American state is an anagram for “forlaid?”

3)What American state is an anagram of “nominates?”
4)What American city is an anagram of “diagnose?”
5)What do these words have in common? “caption,” “dottier,” “meals,” “scrape”
6)What do the words “foregone” and “remained” have in common?
7)What do these words and phrases have in common? “balaustine,” “over and over,” “renovation,” “vagary”
8)What American state can be made only from the letters found in “imps”?
9)What American state can be made only from the letters found in “lions”?
10)What American state can be made only from the letters found in “ranks”?)Bamboo eater slept _ _ _ d _ _ _ _ _ _ _
12))Holy Grail of Pro Hockey _ u _ _ _ _ _

WORLD GEOGRAPHY PUZZLE1)What is the only country named for its geographical position ?
2)What city in Africa is an anagram for “goals?”

3)What country is an anagram of “lizard newts?”
4)What country is an anagram of “lenient ethics?”
5)What country is an anagram of “prison age?”

6)What country is an anagram of “mistaken runt?”

7)What country is an anagram ofGhana faints?”

8)What country is an anagram of ones’ India?”

9)What country is an anagram of “led Iran?”

10)What do the following places have in common? : “Belarus,” “Iraq,” “Malawi,” “United Arab Emirates”


All the following lists of words share a common thread. Name it.

1)appeasement,arpeggio,bedchamber, fortunately
3)Dixielander, interregnum, scowlingly, transmigration, unscathed
4)bra, cab, flu, pants, piano
5)bikini, denim, donnybrook, jeans, millinery
6)blackmailed, gimmick, headache, kickback milkmaid
7)polka, song, spoonfeed, wrong, zoned
8)abhors, almost, biopsy, chimps, ghost
9)ambidextrously, Falconbridge, Schwarzkopf, troublemaking, uncopyrightable
10)jumbo shrimp, military intelligence, pretty ugly

MISCELLANEOUS LANGUAGE QUIZZES1)What word yields the most points in Scrabble that doesn’t contain an a, e, i o, or u?
2)Name a brand of beer whose letters are only worth one point in Scrabble?
3)Name a nine letter word with only one vowel?
4)Name a word with three consecutive letter pairs?
5)Which entertainer’s last name is the past tense of a synonym for his first name?
6)What do the products Dial, Serutan, Tide and Tums have in common?
7)Name a 7 letter word with none of the regular 5 vowels.

8)Name a word of at least 5 letters that is a palindrome?
9)The number “ten” has three letters. What’s the only number that has the same number of letters as the number?
10)In the word “begin” all the letters appear in alphabetical order. Name the only number where the letters appear in alphabetical order.


There are more than one answer to most of these questions. I will only list one in the answers.)

A)Name a word of at least 6 letters that starts with an
a and ends in an a?
B)Name a word of at least 5 letters that starts with a
b and ends with a b?
C)Name a word of at least 6 letters that starts with a
c and ends with a c?
D)Name a word of at least 10 letters that starts with a
d and ends with a d?
E)Name a word with at least 4
F)Name a word with 4
G)Name a word of at least 8 letters that starts with a
g and ends with a g?
H)Name a word with 2 consecutive
I)Name a word with 3
J)Name a word with 2

Monday, October 3, 2011

In Defence of Political Spins

(This article appeared in the Oct 2011  edition of Lexpert under the title "In Defence of Ploitical Spins.)

Euphemisms aren't necessarilly anti-semantic


Howard Richler

In perhaps the most famous political essay ever penned, George Orwell in his Politics and the English Language stated,“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” But sometimes, “pure wind” is exactly the prescription required. I'm not defending the use of horrific euphemisms such as “ethnic cleansing,” “pacification” and “final solution” that barely disguise murderous acts. Expressions such as these should be avoided at all costs and a spade should be called a spade rather than a subterranean digging device just as a Nazi concentration camp should be referred to by the more accurate term death camp.

So while it is easy to be cynical about the intent of political euphemisms, at times they are necessary. As politicians must heed public opinion, one must always remember that words are not only a weapon of war but a required political tool.

When we look back on certain conflicts we suppose they enjoyed universal support in their respective populaces, but rarely is this the case. For example, as late as 1944, almost forty percent of Americans said they favoured a negotiated peace with Germany, hence the specific words used by the Roosevelt administration were crucial in swaying an isolationist population's support for an overseas war. Also,sometimes direct language is counter-productive if you want to effect an agreement. When the Dayton Accord was signed between in 1996 between the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians, none of the participants were prepared for the jarring reality of having the word “partition” in the peace agreement, So they didn’t use it even though the former country of Yugoslavia was effectively being partitioned. Instead of partition, someone invented the term “inter-entity agreement” and everybody was satisfied notwithstanding that nobody knew what the heck it really meant. But at least the lack of clarity allowed a pact to be consummated.

Another historical example of the efficacy of political euphemism occurred during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 when the Americans instituted a “quarantine” on ships travelling from the Soviet Union to Cuba rather than declaring a “blockade.” Why? Theodore C. Sorensen explained in his 1965 book Kennedy that “The President... adopted the term 'quarantine' as less belligerent and more applicable to an act of peaceful self-preservation than 'blockade' ” Sorensen could have added that instituting a “blockade” was considered an act of war whereas instituting a “quarantine” was only an attack on semantics.

This brings me around to the crux of my article ­- our need for some creative word phraseology in Canada. When referencing our health care system, all national politicians avoid uttering the term “two-tier,” like a vampire eschewing a cross. This reticence is notwithstanding the many deficiencies therein and the fact that Canada represents the only country aside from Cuba and North Korea that doesn't have a two-tier health system. Also, the fact that many progressive European nations with left-wing governments have installed health care systems with two tiers that are far more efficient than Canada's and cheaper to boot is blithely avoided by vote-lusting Members of Parliament. For, in Canada, any elected official who admits that he/she is in favour of a two-tier system is immediately excoriated as being un-Canadian and possibly a mole for American Republicans.

Ergo, the solution is simple. Banish the term “two-tier” from the Canadian political vernacular. Let's just talk about “diversified-market health care.” After all, our heterogenous population is more diverse than it has ever been, so “diversified” may be le bon mot we require.

I'm, however, open to other word spins at hrichler@gmail.com.

Howard Richler's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

student bloopers

A version of the following appeared in the Sept. Senior Times.

Revisionist Student History


Howard Richler

September marks back to school season and as kids no longer study history I thought I'd warn teachers about some of the written pronouncements they might have to endure in the months to come. To facilitate the flow of information, I have arranged the following recorded student bloopers in chronological order.

1)No human beings were found during the Ice Age because it was the pre-stork era.

2)In Ancient Egypt people wrote in hydraulics.

3)The Great Wall of China was built to keep out the Mongrels.

4)Cleopatra died when an ass bit her.

5)The Ancient Greeks invented three kinds of columns- corinthian, ironic, and dorc and built the Apocalypse.

6)The Acropolis of Athens contained the Parthian, the Erectum, and the Esophagus, a temple to the war-god.

7)Homer wrote
The Iliad and the Oddity.

8)Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock.

9)Oedipus Complex was a famous queen of Egypt.

10)Oedipus killed his father and married his real mother. That’s called incense.

11)The Romans prosecuted the early Christians because they disapproved of

gladiola fights and would not burn insects before the statue of the emperor.

12)Roman women built fires in their brassieres.

13)The Crusades was trips to drive the turkey out of the Holy Land.

14)The Jews were a proud people and throughout history they had trouble

with unsympathetic Genitals.

15)In the Middle Ages many people died from the bluebonnet plague after

growing boobs on their necks.

16)Because people thought Joan of Arc was a witch they burned her to a steak.

17)Michelangelo painted the sixteenth chapel.

18)Columbus discovered America while cursing the Atlantic. His ships were called the Nina, the Pinta Colada, and the Santa Fe.

19)Henry VIII had a hard time walking because he had an abbess on his knee.

20)Sir Francis Drake circumcized the world with a 100-foot clipper.

21)Queen Elizabeth's navy defeated the Spanish armadillo.

22)William Shakespeare wrote tragedies, comedies, and hysterectomies, all in Islamic pentameter.

23)The main theme of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra was death and suffrage.

24)Miquel Cervantes wrote Donkey Hote.

25)The Pilgrims crossed the ocean in hardships.

26)Descartes’ famous maxim was “cogito eros sum.”

27)Johann Bach practiced on an old spinster in his attic.

28)The French Revolution occurred because Louis XIV was revolting.

29)Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves by signing the Emasculation Proclamation.

30)Cyrus McCormack invented the McCormick raper, that did the job of 100 men.

31)Charles Darwin wrote The Organ of the Species.

32)In the middle of the 19th century, all the morons moved to Utah.

33)Louis Pasteur discovered a cure for rabbis.

34)Thomas Edison was the inventor of the phonograf and the indecent lamp.

35)The First World War, caused by the assignation of the Arch-Duck by a surf.

36)John Steinbeck went on to win the Nobel Prize for literacy.

37)In 1957, Eugene O’Neill won a Pullet Surprise.

38)The President of Iran is a man called Mahmoud Iwantjihad.

As geography is not taught the way it once had been, placenames also take a beating by students:

1)The Israelites lived in the Sarah Desert and traveled by Camelot.

2)Moses went up Mount Cyanide for the Ten Commandments but died before he reached Canada.

43)Pompeii was destroyed by an overflow of saliva from Mount Vatican.

4)The Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Kamikaze and three days later on Nicaragua.

5)They are fighting a civil war in Serbia because the Bostonians, Crates, and Hertzgodivas want to get rid of the Serves.

6)The capital of Ethiopia is Adidas Ababa.

If you have some beauts you'd like to share with me, please email me at hrichler@gmail.com.

Howard Richler's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Attempt to Rehabilitate a Four-Letter Word

(The following article appeared in the September edition of Lexpert under the title "Can Bad Words Be Saved?")

The attempt to rehabilitate a four-letter word


Howard Richler

Little did police constable Michael Sanguinetti realize that his not very common name would one day elicit over one million hits following his ill-advised use of a four letter word while addressing a group of students at Osgoode Law School on matters of health and safety. In case you haven't heard, Sanguinetti advised women to “avoid dressing like sluts” in order to mitigate the risk of sexual assault.

Feeling that Sanguinetti's comments were implying that victims were responsible for being attacked, a “SlutWalk” took place in Toronto in April attracting over 3,000 angry demonstrators. Before long this type of march went viral and as I write over fifty slutwalks have been held in various North American cities, such as the Montreal, Chicago and Los Angeles as well as similar events in Melbourne, Amsterdam and London.

Slutwalktoronto.com states :“Historically, the term ‘slut’ has carried a predominantly negative connotation. Aimed at those who are sexually promiscuous, be it for work or pleasure, it has primarily been women who have suffered under the burden of this label. And whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back. “Slut' is being re-appropriated.”

This raises the following question: Can the meaning of slut be rehabilitated?

Before answering this question, it might be instructive to look at the etymology of “slut.”

The OED offers two main definitions of slut: a) “A woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance; a foul slattern.” (This sense is still quite common in England, particularly among older people.) b) “A woman of low or loose character; a bold or impudent girl; a hussy, jade.”

Notwithstanding that the “loose” rather than the “slovenly” sense is the dominant one, the latter is listed first because its first usage in the 15th century preceded the second by fifty years. It should be noted that under definition b), the OED mentions that slut can be employed “In playful use, or without serious imputation of bad qualities.”

For example, in in 1664 diarist Samuel Pepys referred to his servant girl Susan as a

most admirable slut who pleases us mightily.” One should note, however, that the last recorded “playful” sense of slut was in 1884 by C.G. Gordon and when Charles Dickens uses the word in Nicholas Nickleby as well as in Dombey & Son decades earlier it carries a strong licentious connotation.

So there can be no doubt that nowadays when both men and women direct the word towards women it is invariably a term of opprobrium. The sense of disdain can range from the relatively mild to the almost vitriolic; seeing a slut as a woman with low self-esteem who dresses provocatively in order to make herself more desirable, to seeing a slut as someone with low moral character who is not selective with whom she copulates. Men are generally not called “sluts” and probably most men would not be concerned if similarly labelled. As a result of the double standard in society, men are more likely to be referred to positively as “studs” or by the somewhat archaic term “ladies' man.”

So to answer the question on whether the term “slut” can be re-appropriated the answer is largely a resounding “NO!.” The reality is that only the people whose attitude towards equality of the genders is not problematic will use “slut” in a non-derogatory manner. In any case, the English words people choose to use is not controllable because no person, or force owns them. For example, while some francophones may be unhappy with all the “anyways” and “randoms” found in their vernacular, as language use is a democratic process nothing can be done about it.

Even if eventually by some process the meaning of the word ameliorated, unless societal attitudes change, before long there would be another pernicious word employed to debase women.

Howard Richler's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.